Did Silicon Valley Abandon Doug Engelbart?

One of the most provocative tributes among a sea of tributes to Doug Engelbart, is a post by Tom Foremski, who points out that despite all the applause for the innovative inventor of the mouse, no one would fund Engelbart’s work during the last 40 years of his life.

Foremski writes of Engelbart, who died Tuesday, in his SiliconValleyWatcher blog:

“However, despite all the accolades and testaments to his genius, Silicon Valley largely ignored him and he spent decades trying to find funding for his ideas, and even someone just to listen to him.”

The piece portrays a fairly sad picture of Engelbart, who wowed the tech world in 1968 by demonstrating many key building blocks of current-day computing — his oNLine System or NLS, developed with a team at SRI International.

The system, which was manipulated with a mouse, allowed for online collaboration with remote colleagues, hypertext links (the omnipresent routes to Web sites we use today) and real-time text editing, among other features that Engelbart friend and Brown University computer scientist Andy van Dam called “mind-blowing.”

Here’s a video of the presentation.

Foremski writes about meeting Engelbart in 2005 at a dinner held after a book publicity event for New York Times’ own valley watcher, John Markoff.

“I couldn’t believe my luck. Over on another large circular table, half-empty, sat Doug Engelbart. I asked him if I could sit next to him and we talked for hours. I walked out with a great story, a story that no one had written before, a story of a genius whose work was largely killed by the personal computer “revolution” and how he’d spent decades trying to find companies to fund his work and research.

It’s a story that shows Silicon Valley’s ignorance of its own history and its disgraceful treatment of truly inspired visionaries such as Doug Engelbart, in favor of celebrating PR-boosted business managers who say they are changing the world but don’t come close.”

Foremski does point out that Logitech, the company that made a name on the mouse, provided Engelbart with an office for life. And SRI’s brass stayed close to Engelbart and fielded press inquiries for Engelbart’s family in the wake of his death. Tellingly, PARC, where much of Engelbart’s early work was refined, had no comment on his passing and said none would be coming.

Perhaps PARC officials didn’t want to intrude on the grief of those who loved Engelbart, but the “no comment” felt cold.

Foremski writes: “From In 2005, Mr. Engelbart confided to me: “I sometimes feel that my work over the past 20 or so years has been a failure. I have not been able to get funding and I have not been able to engage anybody in a dialogue.”

A couple of people I talked to in writing Engelbart’s obituary mentioned to me that he was underappreciated. Van Dam, who said he learned an incredible amount from Engelbart, started our conversation saying:

“He went without adequate recognition for far too long. And too few people in computer science as an academic discipline or in the computing field as a whole, knew who he was and what amazing contributions he had made to our field. And if they knew him, they thought of him as the inventor of the mouse, which would be sort of like saying Henry Ford invented the fold-up top on the Model T. It would miss the much larger vision and the much larger contribution that Doug made.”

And Paul Saffo, an Engelbart friend and Silicon Valley futurist, pointed out that many people and companies had profited from Engelbart’s vision, without necessarily understanding the depth of the man’s work.

Saffo said that Engelbart was about augmentation — a word I heard over and over again as I reported his story. He believed in the power for computers to augment human intelligence.

“Doug was so far ahead of his time  that people still misunderstand the most important part of his work today,” Saffo told me. “A whole lot of people got very rich misunderstanding his work, including Steve Jobs. Even as they got rich, they never bothered to go back and understand what really matters. We’re not  just saying farewell to someone who is foundational to the digital revolution. It’s a reminder that we need to go back and look at his work.”

There are opportunities to do that as memories and memorials pour out online. Engelbart most recently and for years was leading the Doug Engelbart Institute (formerly the Bootstrap Institute). The organization’s Facebook page is collecting memories and Engelbart’s daughter and collaborator, Christina, has written a blog post with links to news coverage and press releases.

I am confident that however poorly Engelbart has been treated by Silicon Valley in recent years, that his legacy will be celebrated by history. His thoughts and achievements are simply too powerful to be ignored.

(Photo: Doug Engelbart with Paul Saffo in 2008, by Mercury News photographer Patick Tehan.)

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.